Built with a robotic fabrication technique, the composite canopy pavilion at the Victoria and Albert Museum resembles the wings of a beetle. Photo Credit: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

“With the Elytra Filament Pavilion, we aim to celebrate a truly contemporary and integrative approach to design, engineering and production, resulting in a distinctive spatial and aesthetic experience,” says Menges. “Based on the biological structure of beetles’ hardened forewings, we have created a novel architectural system that is an intricate, extremely lightweight structure made entirely of glass and carbon fibers.”

The pavilion initially had seven supporting columns and 40 hexagonal canopy cells, which were fabricated over four months at the ICD’s Fabrication Hall in Stuttgart. The canopy utilizes a steel tool, while the load-bearing structure consists solely of fibers. The cells are made using a Kuka robot that winds resin-soaked filament onto a hexagonal winding tool. The robotic arm first winds transparent glass fibers onto the tool to form a spatial scaffold, then adds SGL Group’s Sigrafil® 50k carbon fibers to create the load-bearing structure. Once the matrix is hardened, the steel tool is collapsed and removed so that it can be used again. “In contrast to most other composite fabrication processes, our innovative robotic winding process does not require any mold and thus reduces waste to a minimum,” says Menges.

Although produced on the same winding tool, each canopy cell has a unique fiber orientation, arrangement and density. “Despite the similarity in basic make-up, the robotic fabrication process enables an infinite range of morphological and structural permutations of the cells,” explains Menges. “The design, engineering and production of the pavilion’s fibrous system is based on a continuous feedback loop. As it is a fully digital process, each canopy cell can be adapted to its specific loading conditions.”

Each cell has aluminum sleeves embedded in its edges during fabrication. To assemble the canopy roof, bolts are passed through these sleeves and that of adjacent cells. The cells also are covered with a transparent polycarbonate panel with UV protection. Each finished cell weighs approximately 45 kilograms – or less than 100 pounds.

Perhaps the most compelling part of the Elytra Filament Pavilion is that it expanded on site, in real time, with five additional canopy cells fabricated at the V&A throughout the exhibition. Thermal imaging sensors embedded in the canopy collected anonymous data on how visitors use the pavilion. This information was then interpreted in conjunction with temperature, radiation, ambient humidity and wind data to help determine where additional canopy cells would be useful for weather protection.